7.13.2011

The Iraqi Jewish Archive ...

Another cultural heritage issue that keeps rumbling on is the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. It's being restored in the US, having been saved by the State Department from its flooded storage space in Baghdad in the spring / summer of 2003, which is when I first became aware of it. The items in the archive had been stolen from Iraqi Jews by Saddam Hussein.

Whilst we know Donny George was in charge of the Iraqi looting of Kuwait, it unclear who was in charge of the looting of Iraqi artifacts in Iraq. I make no judgement about the late Dr George's actions, since I feel that any of us living under a dictator would be forced to do things that we would rather not, and it it difficult for those of us living in free countries to judge this. Most Jews fled Iraq under Hussein, and others were murdered - to be fair, he also murdered many Christians and Muslims, and the current regime is probably even less enamored with Jews than his was.

The Kuwaitis are still trying to locate items looted by the Iraqis during the first Gulf War and would like to see them returned - see here. The Iraqis seem to be taking the attitude of speaking platitudes, doing nothing.

When it comes to seeking the 'return' of the Jewish Archive to Baghdad, the Iraqi stance is rather different. They want it back, and they want it back now.

The archive was stolen from Mizrahi Jews, some of whom are still alive, and most of whom have descendants still alive. It is unclear when the various parts of the archive were stolen, as the archive is the property of many families, but since Saddam Hussein did not become President of Iraq until 1979, and the seizures date to his time in power, then surely the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO convention should apply?

If the Iraqi are using the UNESCO convention as their grounds for the return of items looted from Baghdad Museum in 2003 and from archaeological site in Iraq, why are they not willing to apply the same reasoning to the items they looted from Kuwait in 1990 and from the Iraqi Jews during Saddam's presidency?

I don't think false claims by 'Rabbi' Menachem Youlusto to have been smuggling scrolls out of Iraq have helped, but we've all been aware for a while that his claims were pure fantasy. They are as much ridiculous propaganda as the outlandish claims made by those stamping their feet demanding the Archive be 'returned' to Baghdad.

The items that make up the Iraqi Jewish Archive had owners until they were confiscated by Saddam, and the right thing to do is to try to track down those owners and return the items to them, just as we are still working to return items to the heirs of those whose art was seized by the Nazis. It would be too easy to claim that those who oppose this are anti-Semitic, but they are probably worse -  idiots, who make knee-jerk reactions without understanding the issues involved, or having thought through their basic argument.

When the arguments over such recent thefts become so tangential to the basic facts, it only serves to illustrate how political cultural property propaganda is today.

See this recent article, which repeats the claims of both sides:
Tug-of-war over Iraqi Jewish trove in US hands - AJC

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